Up for good: Inside Belmont Up ’til Dawn’s most successful year yet
It’s 4:41 a.m. and “Stick to the Status Quo” from Disney Channel’s “High School Musical” echoes through the lobby of the Beaman Student Life Center. A chorus of students join together, singing along to every word. Upstairs in the FitRec Center dozens of students participate in Zumba class, while another large group enjoys a silent disco.
Outside, the campus sleeps.
This is not some off-limits, late night gathering, nor is it an extremely well-coordinated flash mob. No. These students are gathered for Belmont’s fourth annual St. Jude Up ‘til Dawn event, the culmination of almost a year’s worth of planning, social media campaigns, campus events and fundraising — all to help end childhood cancer.
At the break of dawn, the hundreds of students packed together into the Beaman will find out the total amount Belmont raised for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital — this year a record-breaking $146,180.
But that won’t be for at least another two hours. Right now, everyone crammed into the Beaman Student Life Center just wants to stay up for good.
12 a.m. As Friday crawls to a close, dozens of Belmont students shuffle along the softly-lit sidewalks toward the Massey Performing Arts Center. The cloudy skies change very little about the scenery. It’s dark outside — very dark. The first few drops of rain begin to fall just after 11 p.m.. Fortunately, most of this year’s UTD participants are already inside.
On stage, members of Belmont’s UTD executive board — dressed for “The Big Game” in blue and white baseball tees and complementary eye black — lead the rows of energized students through a blaring Top 40 playlist. Giant inflatable soccer balls bounce around the room, occasionally dropping on an unsuspecting head or two before being quickly tossed back into the sea of jersey-wearing attendants.
Friday turns into Saturday, and this years’ Up ‘til Dawn event officially begins, as Executive Director Joe LaMartina takes the stage with Events and Logistics Director Alexis Gilner.
The two are met with a thunderous ovation.
“We’re so grateful to have you here to empower us to raise so much money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital — to help them in their fight to end childhood cancer,” LaMartina says. “For the last fifty years, St. Jude has helped raise the childhood cancer survival rate from 20 percent to 80 percent.”
“We won’t stop until no child dies from cancer.”
1 a.m. The sound of heavy rain slapping the pavement outside MPAC rings in the early hours of Saturday morning. Students splash through puddle after puddle, weaving their way to the Beaman, where the celebration will be held.
“There’s nothing like a cold shower to wake you up in the morning,” a UTD exec board member jokes at the door.
Inside the Beaman, Up ‘til Dawn has set up camp. Buckets of energy drinks, snack tables and photo booths form a perimeter around inflatable games — the kind you’d find at a child’s birthday party. In another room, foosball and ping pong tables occupy spaces that earlier may have contained studying students.
Upstairs, a floor-to-ceiling, inflatable dartboard towers in a corner of the auxiliary gym. Rows and rows of tables topped with St. Jude merch line the Maddox Grand Atrium, serving as a kind-of hideaway for any tired students in desperate need of a break.
The tables will go unoccupied for much of the morning.
2 a.m. Close to 2 a.m., the familiar ding of a text alert can be heard around the Beaman, notifying attendants that the first big event of the night — a team dodgeball tournament — will soon begin.
As the tournament continues into its first, second and third rounds, Joe LaMartina can be seen standing on the sidelines with members of his executive board. A smile stretches across his face — one he won’t be seen without for the rest of the morning.
Many people on campus know Joe because of his four-year-old “baby sister” Lily, whose acute lymphoblastic leukemia diagnosis in July 2016 sparked two 5K fundraisers, which were both spearheaded by Belmont’s Greek organizations.
This morning — on Joe’s 22nd birthday — Lily is on his mind.
“It’s so awesome to see so many people my age who are passionate about helping kids with cancer and knowing that there are so many people — not only here but back home — who have helped us through everything that we’ve gone through,” LaMartina says.
“Lily has a very special place in my heart, so she’s on my mind a lot, but especially tonight.”
3 a.m. As the second challenge of the morning begins, a handful of board members wind their way downstairs for a much-needed break. The windows lining the Beaman lobby only reflect the scene inside.
Empty soda bottles and energy drink cans occupy the most random nooks and crannies, while St. Jude pom-poms and lifeless inflatables line the floors. The screams and spirited cheers from the hundreds of participants on the floor above occasionally pierce the relatively quiet lower level.
In a far-removed corner of the first floor, UTD Director of Operations Madeline Heavener takes a seat for one of the first times of the morning.
Like several members of the UTD board, Madeline shares a personal connection to St. Jude.
Her brother Hayden would have celebrated his 21st birthday this Wednesday. He died at just 9 years old, after a two-year battle with atypical teratoid rhabdoid tumor — a rare cancer of the central nervous system. Hayden was a patient of St. Jude.
“We kind of knew from the beginning that there weren’t going to be great results,” Heavener said. “He was cancer free for a little while, but it came back and metastasized everywhere.”
Instead of turning away from St. Jude, Madeline grew more passionate. Now in her third year with the Belmont UTD chapter, she finds the support for St. Jude “amazing.”
“So many other people care so much about St. Jude and the work they’re doing and are willing to raise $100 and come to this event,” she said. “Belmont’s really special in that way. I feel like every person I’ve encountered here wants to help people and wants to serve.”
“It’s just really great that that many people want to serve St. Jude.”
4 a.m. Soon another member of the executive board — freshman morale captain Olivia Steiner — finds her way down to the calm of the first floor.
Olivia joined because of her cousin Lizzy — a gentle, kind-hearted 11-year-old girl with a penchant for mischief.
On Thanksgiving Day of 2016, Lizzy was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in her left knee. She entered St. Jude as a patient just two days later. Before she started treatment, Lizzy said she wanted a mint blue wig.
Olivia, the eldest grandchild in her family, started visiting Lizzy — the youngest grandchild in the family.
“I went that first weekend, and I’d never really spent that much time alone with her,” Steiner said. “We’re sitting in my hotel room bed and she looked at me and goes ‘have you ever had cancer before?’”
Olivia, responding through tears, told Lizzy she hadn’t, but showed her younger cousin a scar on her chest from a past open-heart surgery.
“I told her I’d made it through that and then said ‘you’ll probably have a couple of these by the time you’re done,’” Steiner said, gripping the St. Jude pin from her sweater firmly between her thumb and index finger.
Over the next year and a half, the cousins developed a strong bond. Olivia now likens Lizzy — who is over seven years her junior — to a sister or a best friend.
But two weeks ago, Olivia received bad news. Lizzy may only have weeks to live.
Olivia, unsure of whether she could stay a part of the UTD team, said Joe LaMartina helped her make the decision to stay.
“I wouldn’t have gone to another meeting if I hadn’t talked to Joe,” she said. “He not only knows what I’m talking about but also doesn’t make me feel like a bad person for being angry, because it is something to be angry about sometimes.”
With hours left to go until dawn, Olivia plans on driving to Memphis later the same morning to be with Lizzy.
5 a.m. With the final moments of 2018’s Up ‘til Dawn event seemingly just a breath away, the last challenge of the night — a low-budget, Belmont version of “Minute to Win It” — begins.
For the third time of the morning, the aux gym fills with equal parts energy and humidity. The third challenge continues through a haze of hysterical cheering and laughter. Several people noticeably watch the challenge from the floor, while others seem to have just awakened to a new day.
As the tentative streaks of early morning light creep shyly through the gymnasium windows, senior Abby Janis takes charge, leading the room through a shockingly energetic, spontaneous Zumba session.
6 a.m. Finally, the big moment arrives.
This year, the reveal of Belmont’s Up ‘til Dawn fundraising total will be broadcast nationally on Fox & Friends. Belmont has planned accordingly.
Assistant Director of Communications Hope Buckner darts around the Maddox Grand Atrium, getting students and UTD board members in their places before the shot goes live at 6:50 a.m..
Naturally, Joe LaMartina is at the center of it all.
As the clock ticks toward ten ‘til, students — now dressed proudly in Belmont T-shirts, sweaters and hats — practice their cheers. Before the cameras even start rolling, the room is deafening.
Then there’s a silence, and a quiet voice in a headset can be heard giving a countdown. The shot is going live.
Joe answers a few questions about Lily, Belmont and Up ‘til Dawn. Then there’s another countdown. And a cheer. And the numbers go up.
$146,180.78 — the largest amount raised by Belmont’s Up ‘til Dawn chapter to date.
Joe runs back to the stage to hug his Up ‘til Dawn family. Many of them are crying tears of joy.
As students file out into Saturday’s morning light, a final announcement is made. Applications to join next year’s Up ‘til Dawn team will soon open.
As Joe said, some seven hours earlier, they won’t stop until no child dies from cancer.
For the full photo gallery, clickhere.